IN: Reviews

In Search of the Russian Soul

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As autumn advances, I find myself often thinking of Pushkin’s Tatiana, that archetype of and heroine to shy, bookish young girls predisposed to hopeless Romanticism, who, “in her soul, herself not knowing why,” loved the Russian winter with her cold beauty.

Greater minds than mine have pondered and probed that mysterious thing, the “Russian soul,” lost sleep, friends, arguably sanity and even lives in pursuit or defense of it. I myself was oddly gratified, also not knowing exactly why, simply to amble through ample late October rain for two Russian programs this weekend.

Saturday night Skylark Vocal Ensemble delivered Rachmaninoff’s a cappella masterpiece, the All-Night Vigil, with conviction, vigor, and a disarming earnestness. Eric Alatorre, Glenn Miller, and Adrian Peacock, three guest basses (oktavists) of impeccable choral pedigree, helped anchor a well-balanced and -blended chorus of 25 voices. Artistic Director Matthew Guard led at a brisk pace, clocking in at just over an hour. At times I wished for a more lingering, pensive touch, or a more chant-like lilt, but one is sympathetic to the already tremendous breath control and stamina at play.

While in the second movement I tend to prefer a contralto in the mold of Kathleen Ferrier, harrowing in quietude, with that eternal note of sadness, mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett perhaps hewed closer to the Psalm 103/4 text, smooth, solid, self-contained as a river-rounded stone that sits so perfectly in the palm of your hand. Tenor Jonas Budris rang a searingly plaintive Song of Simeon in the fifth movement.

Chestnut Hill’s intimate Church of the Redeemer is too cozy by half for the infinite unfolding of primordial forces and celestial mysteries that a more cavernous acoustic might beget, but, Bozhe moi, it brought a visceral immediacy to Skylark’s blast-furnace bursts of radiance in some passages, and an almost rustic warmth reminiscent of the peasants’ chorus in Cavalleria Rusticana pervaded others. One may argue that neither are quite in character for a piece based on Orthodox liturgy, born deep in the throes of war and strife. One might also, in those troubled times as well as our own, gather ye comforts as ye may.

And on to BEMF

Veering from the Slavophilic to the Westernizing pole of the pre-Soviet Russian cultural spectrum, Vancouver’s Pacific Baroque Orchestra presented a selection of opera excerpts from late 18th-century St. Petersburg at Boston Early Music Festival’s season-opening concert Sunday afternoon in Emmanuel Church.

The 26-piece orchestra led by Music Director Alexander Weimann at the harpsichord played with rosy refinement befitting the courtly culture (or aspirations thereto) from which the repertoire sprang. Concertmaster Chloe Meyers’s solo turns wafted an elegant lavender-periwinkle, and the strings as a whole, while not lacking for precision, exhibited a more easeful, shall we say, “pacific,” grace than, for example, the pin-me-to-my-seat crackling auburn blaze of any ensemble helmed by Aisslinn Nosky (formerly concertmaster of that other major Canadian Baroque orchestra, Tafelmusik, now happily of Handel and Haydn Society).

A full wind section (including even clarinets!), a luxury among early music ensembles, provided welcome richness of character and texture. Flutes rendered laudable and lovely service. The natural horns — notoriously finicky and sometimes gloriously funky elsewhere — stunned in their subdued sobriety, like wild colts reined to dressage discipline. Not to imply that this orchestra is all gentility — they certainly could crank up the Sturm und Drang when warranted.

Conductor-harpsichordist Alexander Weinmann

Karina Gauvin’s soprano is a bit broad and globulous for my taste, and her lower register too easily drowns away in the orchestra, but her long legato, especially as it draws to a self-reflective diminuendo end, like a morning glory curling up into itself at eventide, impressed. She was most at home in a program finale of arias from Gluck’s Armide (as popular in Petersburg as it was elsewhere in Europe), which delighted her fans in the audience, and “Divinités du Styx” from Alceste, a resounding encore.

The greatest draw of the concert for me, however, was the chance to hear rare repertoire — operatic compositions by Italians under Tsarist employ (Domenico Dall’Oglio, 1700-64,  and Giovanni Paisiello, 1740-1816), alongside those of Tsarist subjects whom the court dispatched to study those Italian stylings in situ (Petersburg native Yevstigney Ipat’yevich Fomin, 1761-1800, and Ukrainians Maksym Sozontovich Berezovsky, 1745-77, and Dmytro Stepanovich Bortniansky, 1751-1825).

And how very Italian it all sounded! If one could squint one’s ears, one might pick out some fleeting Slavic susurrations, but in a blind test I’d be hard pressed to identify these echoes of the Petrine Baroque from their western contemporaries. Such were the aural threads that wove the silk linings of Rastrelli’s palatial Petersburg — a twinkle-toed galant that could as easily glide through the halls of Venice or Vienna. Even Bortniansky, the first native Slav to become the imperial kapellmeister, who busied himself with composing and codifying the Orthodox choral music that would later inspire Rachmaninoff, betrays nary a trace of this Slavic heritage in an overture that charmingly quotes in passing the “cantando va” refrain of “Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella” from Pergolesi’s Il flaminio, that same which would punctuate Stravinsky’s Pulcinella more than two centuries later.

Weimann spoke of the difficulty of musicological research in the largely inaccessible Mariinsky archives, from whose holdings the program selection originated. Judging from this promising crop, we can only hope a future thaw and glasnost will yet yield a fuller harvest.

CJ Ru, Yale PhD candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale. 

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